“European Eyes” – A collaborator’s view

Text by Munemasa Takahashi.
First published in European Eyes on Japan / Japan Today, vol. 17, Tokyo, Japan, September 2015.

There is a Japanese slang term, nomi-nikeeshon – bordering on archaic these days I’m afraid – meaning to facilitate communication through the imbibing of alcohol. I can’t speak much English, so when I go overseas, this form of communication becomes my lifeline. I figure that even if we can’t speak each other’s language, if we are able to enjoy few drinks together, the finer points don’t really matter and we can be friends.

So when Max asked me to play the role of a drunken “salaryman” passed out on the street, I eagerly assented. This in fact, was my specialty! To limber up for the part I purchased a hip flask of whiskey at the local liquor store and gulped it down, the result being that I faced the camera not so much as the perfect method actor, as an authentic drunkard.

The photos I assisted with were those of a salaryman carrying documents that blow away in the wind, and inebriated salaryman passed out on the road, and being a photographer myself, I’d like to write a little about how to get the most enjoyment out of Max’s work, based on these two.

Max uses a technique often referred to as staged photography, setting his photos in actual streetscapes, and weaving in little stories.
These stories are modest scenes with a hint of mystery, the product of mixing various elements: perhaps what Max has come to see from living in Japan, perhaps what Japan looks like from overseas, his research into works related to Japan’s past.
For example the shot of papers flying is I suspect in the vein of Jeff Wall, and before him, the images of Katsushika Hokusai, served up with a large dose of respect for both.

Having looked at these trifling tales, one then begins to find hidden stories surrounding every photo of a rock in a stream, or streetscape, and feel the part of the brain that sets the imagination firing, kicking into gear.

Fundamentally, photography compresses the time in which the aperture was open and converts it to a single, flat surface, so there is no before or after, and deciphering the photo inevitably requires input from one’s own knowledge and memories. Which makes photography perfect for these compact narratives. I hope as you enjoy these photographs you will ponder the kind of stories they might conceal.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to cooperate in the work of Max and his assistant Victoria, who came to a land with which they had a connection, but little common language, and to see their efforts take shape in this way. Needless to say I also look forward to some more nomi-nikeeshon on their next visit to Japan!